Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dylan's Christmas album

The poet in repose.

Ha! Gotcha. We're talking Dylan Thomas here, not that other Dylan. And the "album" in question is, well, more like a poem (even if it does, actually, play like a collection of songs) - A Child's Christmas in Wales, the Welsh bard's tribute to the sights and sounds of the holidays "years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales . . . " The piece is a vividly mischievous memory piece (you can read it here), and so has oft been dramatized - not always successfully, however, as it's intentionally shapeless, impressionistic, and off-hand.

But Burgess Clark, new artistic director of Boston Children's Theatre (and adaptor/director of BCT's new A Child's Christmas, etc.) has solved that problem by - well, making up a story that the poem itself doesn't tell. Sorry to put it so bluntly, but that's how it is. Several critics, including the Globe's Sandy MacDonald, would have you believe that Clark managed to "tease out a fully realized, well-shaped narrative from this discursive sliver of text." But really none of this version's "story arc" can be found in the poem. Basically, Clark has stitched together the premise of that Waltons Christmas special where John-Boy gets his Big Chief tablets with wistful scraps from Capote's A Christmas Memory - and then studded the new structure with tasty bits of description from A Child's Christmas in Wales. To be fair, this pastiche works well enough as a framework for set-pieces from the poem; but it does misrepresent its essence, and I think Thomas's life, too. I'm not a scholar of this poet, but I don't think his boyhood included a live-in maiden aunt (at least there's no such person in the poem), much less one who inspired him to be a writer by giving him a journal for Christmas. Indeed, with this whole fabulation adaptor Clark does something of a disservice to Thomas's parents (who were his true champions as a writer) - in his first act he even paints them as sweet yahoos who can't recognize a blank journal when they see one.

But then almost nothing in Clark's first act rings true, because there's not all that much Dylan Thomas in it - almost every incident in this preamble on Christmas Eve (which never figures in the poem) is synthetic, and while Clark's conceits are plausible enough (a blizzard strands the quirky, adorable relatives, etc.), somehow they lack that spark of authenticity that was Thomas's signature. Indeed, by the time intermission rolled around, I was wondering to myself, "What Child is this???"

Things look up in the second half, however, because Clark can rely more on actual incidents and sketches from the poem, and Thomas's parents morph into something closer to their actual selves (and the big invented set-piece of the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet charms, as it fits the characters so much more specifically than what has come before). And while the director sometimes allows the comic action to drift toward Home Alone territory, he laudably underplays the affectionate nostalgia of the piece, so it steals up on us unawares. Plus he has a sentimental secret weapon in young Adam Freeman, who plays the nine-year-old Dylan with wide-eyed alertness and a sweet emotional honesty that's surprising in so young an actor, and makes his scenes truly touching in a way few Christmas shows are; when Freeman simply (and wordlessly) hugs his Ma or his Da, I defy your heart not to melt.

There's also fine work from the "elder" Dylan, Stephen Libby (at left, with Freeman), who has a passing resemblance to the poet and captures something of his famously musical speaking voice (you can listen to Thomas reading "Do not go gentle into that good night" here). What's more, Libby has a relaxed, confident way of stepping back and forth across the "fourth wall" (he chats with the cast as well as the audience), and hits just the right notes of adult awareness and loss. Melancholy is not a quality one associates with Christmas pageants - but don't we all share on these occasions, as Joyce's Gabriel Conroy did on another Christmas, "thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes, of absent faces that we miss here tonight"? Thomas is very much a nostalgic poet in the mode that Joyce both celebrated and ironically tweaked, and Libby captures that instinctive feeling perfectly.

There's also solid work from the rest of the cast, and gently apt characterizations from Margaret Ann Brady and Steven Gagliastro. The other young actors, Linnea Schulz and Coleman Hirschberg, are poised and natural onstage. And the set is heart-warming, though somewhat generic in its detail (and seems to lack a key flat in one spot!).

One thing I must mention, however. I noticed in my program - despite the fact that I haven't ordered those bifocals yet - that a certain "Terry Byrne" was listed as the assistant director of the production. Goodness me, I thought to myself, could that be THE Terry Byrne, former Herald critic and current correspondent for the Globe, as well as frequent guest of Greater Boston? A little research revealed that, yes, this was that Terry Byrne, even though she only admits in her program bio to being a humble graduate student of playwriting at BU. And it's funny how well this disguise has worked - nobody in town seems to know she worked on the show! The Globe, where I think she still reviews on occasion, gave the piece a rave, without apparently ever guessing that one of its own writers was behind it! (Fancy that.) And I'm wondering whether there will be an episode of Greater Boston devoted to it - will Terry offer up any opinions on her own work, one wonders? (Let's hope so!)

But then again, I thought to myself - perhaps this is just a test of your Christmas spirit, Thomas Garvey! After all, Terry may be your ethically-challenged critical nemesis, but admit it - surely she's going to be better at playwriting than she is at reviewing! I mean she has to be. And how much of an effect has she had on A Child's Christmas in Wales, anyhow? (Hard to tell, but I'm guessing not much.) So, in the spirit of the season, I forgive you, Terry. Merry Christmas.

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